South Sudan: The Painful Rise and Rapid Descent of the World’s Newest Nation

Author: Richard Downie was deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. from 2009 to 2018.

On July 5, 2011, tens of thousands of people gathered in the furious heat of Juba to witness a moment many thought would never occur in their lifetimes: the entry of South Sudan into the community of nations. The event capped five decades of struggle—including 39 years of war—that began before Sudan, the nation from which the new state seceded, achieved its own independence. After signing South Sudan’s interim constitution, the country’s new president, Salva Kiir, addressed the jubilant crowds: “We have waited more than 56 years for this. It is a dream come true.” 

Within two and a half years, that dream lay in ruins. In December 2013, fighting erupted between army factions loyal to Kiir and supporters of the man he had ousted as his deputy, Riek Machar. The fighting escalated into mass killings, the renewal of old enmities, and the outbreak of a civil war that quickly pitted the nation’s main ethnic groups against each other.
How did South Sudan, which entered independence on a wave of international support—including the steadfast backing of the United States—fail so fast? Warning signs were present from the outset for anyone who looked past the facile narrative advanced by U.S. advocacy groups and congressional allies that depicted the civil war as a clash between virtuous (mainly Christian) liberation heroes in the south and malevolent (mainly Muslim) oppressors in the north.

The new nation faced sobering challenges, and few serious preparations were made to overcome them during the critical period leading to independence. South Sudan had virtually no infrastructure, limited human capital, an economy overwhelmingly reliant upon oil, and a hostile neighbor on its yet-to-be-demarcated northern border. These hurdles were not insurmountable, but required enlightened, accountable leadership and consistent support from international partners. Unfortunately, neither was present. Instead, the government of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) mimicked the governance model of its erstwhile oppressors in Khartoum, establishing a regime based on exclusion, venality, and repression. The United States had played an instrumental role in sustaining South Sudan during the final decade of its civil war and supported the negotiations of the peace settlement that paved the way to statehood. But the United States was distracted at critical moments and failed to confront the new country’s leaders about their governance failures until it was too late.
This is a chapter in Independence Movements and Their Aftermath. Please click here for more.

Richard Downie